Strong Need for Religious Literacy in Malaysia

By Nadine Faisal

November 2021 U-40
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RELIGIOUSLY DIVERSE AS Malaysia is, its people are strangely monolithic in literacy of the faiths of their fellow countrymen. Thaipusam, for example, takes on the narrowed view in general discourse as “a celebration where Hindus all over the country go processioning to Batu Caves, with sharp stuff stuck in various parts of their bodies.”1 The festival in fact commemorates the occasion when Parvati gifted Murugan a “Vel” spear to banish the demon Soorapadman and his brothers.

A convergence of factors helps to build this hard-to-penetrate cultural bubble; and the status quo almost always wins when attempts at religious literacy are made to understand the many spiritual practices of Malaysians. Even in a mixed government school setting, close friendships are formed mostly within the students’ own racial and religious communities, influenced perhaps by their respective mono-religious upbringings. What we are left with usually are the shared enjoyment but scant understanding of the country’s public religious holidays, and a curiosity for the places of worship we pass by during our daily commute.

I live in an area that has a gurdwara, a great Hindu temple and a Methodist church all on the same road, not unlike Penang’s Street of Harmony. For years, I have wanted to visit them but since these places are not tourist destinations, I have yet to muster the courage to do so for the slight misgiving that I may be an unwelcome visitor. Calling ahead is an additional albeit simple step that remains perpetually on my to-do list.

Maybe this hesitation is completely unwarranted. But the concern that it might be otherwise stems less from a fear of bigotry that they might have against me, a Sunni Muslim than from a recognition that my own faith community has not always been welcoming of theirs, so I worry they might suspect less than good intentions.

If you look closely, places of worship flank this intersection on the MRR2.

Among Malay(sian) Muslims, fearmongering is being stirred up against Shia Muslims, the distinction between Judaism and Zionism still requires teaching, and I only recently learned that some Taoist devotees observe a vegetarian diet for nine days to commemorate the Nine Emperor Gods Festival.

But where in social circles there is diversity, meaningful discussions are also halted by hesitancy and the fear of unintentionally offending. On social media, giving expression to religious sentiments courts controversy; this is especially so for an influencer, whose followers are themselves followers of diverse faiths. Religion is a loaded subject that I posit many keep private about, in order to avoid being pigeonholed into stereotypes of religiousness or irreligiousness, and quite possibly policed or stigmatised. But what this leads to is a washing out of religion from our identities in public spaces, whether real or virtual, which in turn makes it harder to learn about each other in the context of faith or non-faith.

We Malaysians have become de-sensitised to the weaponising of religion in politics, which the youth-led campaign #CubaDengarDulu (#ListenFirst) is trying to reverse by advocating instead for an empathetic approach to the freedoms of religion or belief and expression. This initiative is jointly managed by Article 19, an NGO that champions “the two interlocking freedoms: Freedom to Speak and Freedom to Know”, and Projek Dialog, which as the name suggests, works to promote discussions of marginal voices.

Art by Pangrok Sulap for the #CubaDengarDulu campaign

“The goal is to highlight minority stories of race, religion and gender when these can’t be talked about openly. We are encouraging youths to ‘Listen’ to narratives that are different from theirs, but yet intersect and are intertwined with the social fabric of Malaysia,” says its spokesperson, who declined to be named.

But even when the content isn’t explicitly on religion, #CubaDengarDulu has found itself on the receiving end of public backlash. “In one email, the sender wrote orang Islam akan keliru (Muslims will be confused), and they shouldn’t have freedom of religion under the perlembagaan (Constitution). It finished with kita akan melaporkan kepada pihak yang wajib (we will report this to relevant authorities), which goes to show just how easy it is to veer into taboo territory.”

It seems the case that in Malaysia, it is hard to even discuss talking about religion, to say less about its direct address across faith lines. All this of course bodes poorly for religious literacy. But religious illiteracy, both as a symptom and a cause of religious tension, is something we desperately need to work against.

Nadine Faisal

is currently a programme officer with an NGO that advocates for the rights of migrant workers, refugees, women and children. During her undergraduate years abroad, she worked for her university's Spiritual Life Office, serving the needs of the various faith and non-faith communities on campus